Tag Archives: command

‘But I was only following orders…’

I’ve noticed something striking, and dare I say it, sadly ironic, whilst browsing wikipedia of all places.

1999… Kosovo… British Lieutenant-General Sir Mike Jackson is in command of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, a NATO formation in the process of moving into Kosovo to implement a peace agreement. All is well apart from a Russian armoured column moving towards Pristina Airport from Bosnia. Jackson’s superior, Supreme Allied Commander Wes Clark, orders Jackson to block Pristina Airport to prevent the Russians flying in troops. Jackson considered it a dangerous order, and refused, saying ‘I’m a three star General, you cannot give me orders like that… I will not start World War Three for you’. Jackson phoned the British Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, and stated his objections. Guthrie agreed, and called his counterpart in the US – General Hugh Shelton – who also agreed. Their opinion was passed on to Clark. In the end Jackson flew up to the Airport and met with the Russian General, and over a bottle of Whisky, smoothed things over. Crisis averted.

1946… Nuremberg… Numerous Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg War trials – and indeed, at many other war crimes trails after the defeat of Nazi Germany – claimed that they were innocent, as they were ‘only following orders’. The Nuremberg trials went on to establish the precedent that it is an inadequate defence to claim that you were only following orders, and that the individual has a responsibility, if they feel they are given a dangerous, immoral or criminal order, to not carry it out. The crux is, that military discipline and obedience does not trump all – humanity and reason, however, does. We live in democracies, after all.

But what really distubed me, was to read that shortly after the Kosovo War, a US Senator branded Mike Jackson’s refusal to carry out Clark’s orders as ‘insubordination’. General Hugh Shelton has also called it ‘troubling’ (which is strange, seen as he agreed with it at the time). In effect, US Senators and commanders are advocating an ignorance of the Nuremberg protocol, and suggest that any and every order should be followed without question. The realities of coalition warfare are somewhat different. While serving under NATO command each national contingent commander has a link to his own Government, and has a right of appeal to his national superiors. What makes a good coalition commander – such as Wellington or Marlborough – is to get to know all of the national peculiarities involved, such as who can do what, and work within them. Not to just blindly expect everyone to follow your orders.

I don’t think there will be many historians or military historians who disagree with the fact that setting up a blocking force on Pristina Airport would have been provocative and un-necessary. Of course, there wouldn’t have been an issue if Clark hadn’t given such a ridiculous order in the first place. In Jackson’s memoirs he records that Clark was often jumpy and acted strangely, and that he seemed to have a Cold War mentality, particulary where the Russians were concerned. At one point he ordered the US Admiral commanding naval forces in the region to block the Dardanelles, when right of passage through them is governed by international treaty. He also asked a senior German General, during a video conference, if German soldiers ‘had the spirit of the bayonet’.

Troubling stuff from an alliance commander indeed. But, also, a reminder of why History should never be too far away from the mind of any General…



Filed under Army, debate, defence, politics

When Generals fall foul of the Politicians

The recent sacking of General Stanley McChrystal has got me thinking about other Generals who have fallen foul of their political masters. Its by no means a new story – we only need to think back to the ‘frocks and hats’ arguments during the First World War.

During the Korean War President Harry Truman was forced to sack the Supreme Allied Commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was seemingly untouchable, having been a formed head of the US Army, Supreme Commander in the Pacific War and Commander of the occupation forces in Japan. MacArthur publicly criticised Truman’s policies, and wanted to extend the Korean War to mainland China. He also apparently wanted to use nuclear weapons. This was unacceptable to Truman, and he was advised by his cabinet colleagues and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that MacArthur should be relieved. Yet MacArthur remained a national hero, and Truman’s poll ratings nosedived.

During the Second World War Winston Churchill made a habit of sacking Commanders, particularly in the Middle East. Both Wavell and Auchinleck fell foul of Churchill’s lack of patience, even though both were probably doing as well as they could have done in the circumstances. The problems with Britain’s Army were not confined to its Generals, after all, and it would not be until later in the war that Britain’s Army would mature from its weak state of 1939. But this was not enough for Churchill.

Although Montgomery initially pleased Churchill with his victory at Alamein, he received criticism for his perceived slowness in Normandy. A powerful lobby at Supreme Headquarters actively sought for Monty’s sacking, and it was only through the ardent support of General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, that Monty was not dismissed. Even Churchill could be hostile to him, for example after Montgomery banned Churchill from visiting his HQ in Normandy. Brooke persuaded Montgomery to write and apologise, thus saving his job.

Matters with Montgomery came to a head after Arnhem. There was deep mistrust between Montgomery and his American counterparts. For his part, Montgomery did not help matters with an outrageous press conference he gave shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, belittling the Americans. Eisenhower was very close to asking for his sacking, before Brooke managed to smooth things over. It seems that the large part of Brooke’s job was to act as a buffer between Churchill and his Generals.

In more modern times, General Sir Richard Dannatt was effectively blocked from being promoted to Chief of Defence Staff by Gordon Brown, due to a number of statements critical of the Government. Although Dannatt was right in his comments, it could be argued that he should not have made them. Given his post-retirement support for the Conservative Party, the line he took while still in command of the Army does seem un-constitutional. There is a long held convention that Generals do not get involved in politics, they are civil servants as much as any other Government employee.

While Generals are often held up as national heroes, and to themselves and their men they are the closest thing to god, McChrystal’s sacking is a reminder that there is a bigger picture – just as in any line of work, it doesnt pay to criticise your boss in public!

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Falklands then and now: Command and Leadership

In 1982, the primacy of the Royal Navy was clear. The Task Force came about largely because the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, over-rode the objections of the Army and RAF and insisted that it should be attempted. As the conflict was dependant on the Navy to carry it out, command was placed within existing Royal Navy structures. The Task Force Commander was Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet based in Northwood.

In other respects, however, the arrangement was rather ad-hoc. In some respects, there was an almost dangeorus lack of understanding, clash of personalities and unwielding lines of command. The British armed forces learnt many lessons from how command coped in the Falklands, and this led to new systems and structures that were perfected from the first Gulf War onwards.

The picture in 1982

Brigadier Julian Thompson and Major-General Jeremy Moore conferring

Brigadier Julian Thompson and Major-General Jeremy Moore conferring

In 1982 senior appointments and command systems were focussed on Britain’s role within NATO. Independent operations outside of NATO and without allies were thought extremely unlikely.

The Commander of the Battle Group, Rear-Admiral Sandy Woodward, fell into the role rather than being chosen, as his flotilla was exercising off Gibraltar when the crisis blew up. He was a Submariner Officer, who had spent a matter of weeks onboard Aircraft Carriers during his career. If he hadn’t been on the spot it is likely that a more senior, Aircraft Carrier or Amphibious specialist would have been appointed.

In other respects the command system was rather untidy – to this day, Woodward insists that he was the senior commander in the South Atlantic, whereas Julian Thompson (3 Commando Brigade) and MiKe Clapp (Commodore Amphibious Warfare) feel that they ALL were equal and reported back to John Fieldhouse in Britain. This could have resulted in serious problems. That such senior officers were unclear of who commanded who is rather worrying.

The submarines, meanwhile, were commanded directly from Britain, in the same manner as if they were in the North Atlantic. This left Woodward, an ex-Submarine Commander himself, out of the loop completely and unable to control one of the key components of the Task Force. The time taken communicating over the Belgrano issue could have led to her slipping away.

The picture in 2009

Structure of the Permament Joint Headquarters (PJHQ)

Structure of the Permament Joint Headquarters (PJHQ)

After the end of the Cold War, doctrine and experience has led to a more flexible culture and structure of command, less on any predictable enemy or threat and more able to react quickly and flexibly to crises.

As a result of the lessons learnt during the Falklands War, a Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) was set up, to command all three armed services during combined operations. This is a more permanent and more professional arrangement than previously, whereby the Armed service that was most involved in an operation commanded on an ad hoc basis. As such any Argentine invasion could be met with an immediate response by the PJHQ who could go to work immediately.

The Royal Navy itself has fine tuned its command system and its structure. The Chief of Joint Operations at PJHQ would perform the function that Admiral Fieldhouse did in 1982 as the British-based command of the Task Force, and the Commander UK Maritime Forces, a Rear-Admiral, would probably be deployed as the senior Commander in theatre. The Carrier Strike Group and Amphibious Group both have Commodores commanding them who would deploy as well. The Commander UK Amphibious Forces, a Royal Marines Major-General, would likely command the Land Forces as in 1982, with the Brigadiers of the specific Brigades – Army or Marines – underneath him.


In 1982 the command arrangements for the Task Force were largely improvised specifically for the conflict, as it fell outside the remit of the existing structures and there were no permanent arrangements for commanding joint operations. This was also reflected in the broader culture within the armed forces.

Despite their ad-hoc nature the arrangements worked well, although there were problems – particularly the lack of understanding between the Battle Group Commander and the Amphibious Commanders, and the control of Submarines in theatre. Commanders in theatre also had limited independence, and ultimate command rested in Britain. With the limited technology of the day, this made communication difficult.

Lessons were clearly learnt, as in 2009 the Armed Forces have an integrated system for co-ordinating joint operations, that has worked well in recent conflicts. This would be able to swing into action the minute any Task Force were required. The value of a familiar and dedicated staff team in taking action would be considerable. Modern statellite technology would enable swifter communication and decision making.


Filed under Army, Family History, Navy, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized